NAPLES, Fl - Hurricane conditions are spreading across southern Florida, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami reported, as the massive storm's eyewall passed over the lower Florida Keys after slicing through some of Cuba's top tourist resorts on Saturday.
The ferocious power of Irma was revealed Sunday morning as TV footage showed heavy flooding in downtown Key West, house boats sinking in Marathon Key and high seas washing over Miami's downtown and turning the Brickell Avenue banking district into a river, almost 150 miles from the eye of Irma. A crane was toppled in downtown Miami, smashing into a building under construction, as wind gusts reaching 110 mph lashed the city.
Almost three million homes and business were without electricity, according to
Florida Power & Light (FPL) electricity company. Miami Beach also was hit with powerful near hurricane force winds overnight and large parts of the island of Key Biscayne, home to 10,000 people, were also flooded.
Well over one million people are estimated to have evacuated its path in Florida. Six million Floridians - a quarter of the state's population - were told to abandon their homes and seek shelter from Irma, the largest ever hurricane to form in the Atlantic. Hundreds packed into the Germain ice hockey arena, Naples' largest hurricane evacuation shelter where winds reached 115 mph on Sunday afternoon as Irma's eye approached.
A few hours later Naples Municipal Airport recorded a wind gust of 142 mph, the National Weather Service reported.
But Irma later lost intensity as it passed over land dropping to 105 mph as it approached Port Charlotte.
It could have been much worse if Irma had strayed further east close to Miami, said Univision meteorologist Eduardo Rodriguez. "We escaped a catastrophe of apocalytic proportions," he said.
Police and emergency vehicles were taken off the roads in Collier County and a civil state of emergency was declared. "Everyone needs to stay in place and protect themselves," county commissioner Andy Solis, told Univision News.
Forecasters predict Irma will cause up to 10 to 15 ft storm surge in parts of Florida's west coast, and 5 to 8 feet in Tampa Bay, one of the state's most low lying, flood-prone regions. Adding to that, it will also produce 10 to 15 inches of heavy rain, with isolated amounts of 20 inches are expected over the Florida Keys. "The surge will be accompanied by large and destructive waves," the hurricane center said.
More than 75,000 people took refuge in shelters, while thousands more fled the state altogether or packed hotels in Orlando and further north. Among those forced to evacuate was Florida Governor Rick Scott who announced his family had left their $15 million beachside mansion in Naples.
The Hurricane Center reported that overnight Irma built back up to Category 4 status on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale with maximum sustained winds of 130 mph as it made landfall in Cudjoe Key, 20 miles northwest of Key West. By the afternoon it dropped back to 120 mph as the storm's center headed for the city of Naples. It previously touched 185 mph at its peak.
Hurricane Warnings were extended up both sides of the Florida peninsula, "a remarkable swath that included the entire coastline of the peninsula, plus about half of the Florida Panhandle coast, including Tallahassee and Apalachicola,"
said Weather Underground meteorologist Bob Henson, who described Ira's projected track as a “peninsula runner.”
Irma is a massive storm dwarfing the state's largest storm in recent times, Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which destroyed 127,000 homes in South Florida, killing 44 people. Hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 70 miles (110 km) from the center and tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 195 miles (315 km).
"The landfalls of Irma and Harvey as Cat 4s makes 2017 the first year on record (going back to 1851) with two Atlantic landfalling hurricanes of Category 4+ strength in the U.S.," according to Weather Underground.
Tampa is according to experts one of the most vulnerable areas of the United States to floods and damage from the direct impact of a hurricane. A Boston consultancy, CoreLogic, wrote a report estimating that the region would lose $175 billion if hit by a hurricane the size of Katrina. A World Bank study also found that Tampa Bay is one of the top 10 flood risk areas in the world. Almost 30 percent of Tampa Bay residents live in high-risk areas.
The Tampa Bay region has not suffered a direct impact from a Category 3 or greater hurricane in nearly a century. National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said that when Tampa was hit by a major storm known as Hurricane Tarpon Springs in 1921 its population was only 10,000 people. According to National Weather Service model it caused storm surge of 9 -11 feet.
"Tampa Bay doesn't get hit very often by hurricanes," according to Jeff Masters, meteorology director at the Weather Underground.. "The city faces the ocean to the west, and the prevailing east-to-west trade winds at that latitude make it uncommon for a storm to make a direct hit on the west coast of Florida from the ocean," he added. "The large expanse of shallow continental shelf waters offshore from Tampa Bay (less than 300 feet deep out to 90 miles offshore) is conducive for allowing large storm surges to build."
On Saturday Irma made landfall in northern Cuba with 160 mph winds, the first Category 5 hurricane to hit the island in more than 80 years.
The storm pounded Havana's famous Malecon seafront as well as the tourism resorts that stretch along the coast of Villa Clara province to Varadero, Cuba’s most famous beach. Hotels on Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo, popular with Canadian and European tourists, sustained serious damage, Reuters reported.
In the nearby town of Caibarien, Cuban TV reported major flooding, downed tress as well as telephone and electricity poles. Power was cut to several towns region.
French territories badly hit
France's public insurance agency estimates that Hurricane Irma inflicted 1.2 billion euros ($1.44 billion) in damage on infrastructure in the French overseas islands of Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy.
It added that Hurricane Irma is "one of the biggest natural catastrophes to have occurred in France in 35 years."
In the Atlantic, Hurricane Jose is also Category 4 hurricane, but was no immediate threat to land after passing well north of Puerto Rico on Sunday.
Luis Velarde and Damia Bonmati are reporting from Naples, and David Adams is in Miami.